What to say in welcoming 2018?

January 7, 2018

Most years of late I have found myself writing a reflection on the turning of the year. More often than not it takes the form of a spiritual musing, with a religious flavor to it. This is much less than surprising, I suppose, since June of this year will mark thirty-five years since my classmates and myself were ordained priests by Humberto Cardinal Medeiros at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

But this year . . . what to say? This year there has been a week’s delay, at least, in any musings on the passage of 2017 into 2018. There is no sense in me, either, that a reflection on this year’s arrival should touch at all upon my own life or what ‘resolutions’ might be appropriate to the new year.

Why? That’s the question I have been carrying. Carrying into prayer. Carrying into pastoral visits. Carrying into conversations with family and friends. Carrying into dreams, or rather into nightmares.

The answer seems to be along these lines.

Never before through the decades and passages of my living,

  • not in my childhood, watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news announce each week how many had been murdered in that week’s dark efforts in Southeast Asia;

  • not in my early teens rushing home from school to watch Senator Sam Ervin’s hearings reveal the depths of Nixonian drama in and around Watergate;

  • not in the dreadful antics of the Bill Clinton White House in the Monica Lewinsky affair;

  • and not in the innumerable other revelations, in and out of government, of the foibles of human beings and the truth of the teaching on Original Sin, which I have been unlucky enough to witness leave their mark on the years of my living;

never through it all do I recall feeling as oppressive a dark cloud hanging over daily life as I have since the morning of November 9, 2016.

Our own daily lives, our work and our vacations, our friendships and our pains, always take place within the larger context of the world around us, what I sometimes call ‘the big world.’ Sometimes that context is experienced as hopeful and life-giving, as carrying light into darkness. Sometimes, much less so.

But never in my experience of living has the larger context within which we live and move appeared so grim, as consistently grim as the set of the mouth of Donald Trump. Never before in my life has that larger context loomed so heavy, leaning down deep into every day, every event, every conversation like a heavy weight to bear, like noxious smoke poisoning the atmosphere, like winter’s darkness implacable and ongoing. Never before, I affirm again, reminding you that this is stated by a guy who watched the evening news daily as a kid and who chose the Watergate Committee hearings over extracurricular activities in high school. I have actively engaged and watched the big world and have enjoyed noting its relation to the world of everyday life.

But the feel of the present time, though others have sought and found words to express it, I cannot do justice to in any word or set of words I know. This is a time of lament.  Wait, perhaps that is the word.

Lament, and here is a corner to turn, is one of the many genres of literature found in the Scriptures. To cite but one place it is so, there are deep lamentations within the 150 psalms. For me as a believer, these not only furnish both permission and encouragement to cry out in the agony of the present time, they do something more as well, something that provides a window toward a yet larger context.

These scriptural cries of burdened hearts not only put before God tough situations within which God’s people struggled to survive. More than a few times, they also include complaints directly aimed at God, more or less saying, “When are you going to kick into gear, dear God, and respond to this mess as only you can do?” Given who the community of faith proclaimed God to be, it was a fair question. But one thing more: the simple fact that the lament ended at God’s doorstep stated clearly that the final context within which all things happened was the presence and the desire and the ways of the God who ultimately could not be denied. Pace my atheist friends, this is still and always our ultimate context.

So yes, here I am, ending up back among things spiritual and religious. I guess it was inevitable. But while I take this arrival place as a sign of hope in the midst of developing tragedy, I do not take it as a refuge. Beyond the context of life as it is now, that I see as darkness, there is a brighter horizon. But that horizon is not an escape route. It is, rather, a call to action, to practical and measurable action. Many are arriving at that call, by several routes, and that is little wonder.

I saw 2017 expire in a heap and give birth to a whining brat of a new year. There is one thing that can begin to mature the new year and that one thing would only begin by the end of the Trump misadministration of the nation.

donald_trump_official_portrait-copie-810x1013

Official Portrait.  Source: White House

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Posted in Images, Words!

The Days of Christmas

It is good for us to try and give ourselves over to an extended contemplation of the worth and the meaning of any single event or reality in our world.  The season of Christmas gives us an initial 12 days to do so, and then the tradition extends some sense of the season throughout the days until Candlemas on the 2nd of February.

ballenger-black-madonna-and-child

[From SacredSpace]

How different this is than anything we experience in our culture today,  The very instant an event is over now, it is left in the past and rarely considered.  On the principal news outlets complex events and issues receive a few seconds or at most a few minutes of reporting and consideration.  And one rarely hears any talk of the ongoing and lasting meaning of anything.

Christianity teaches us and invites us to see and experience the benefit of doing what Mary did, according to the Christmas scriptures.  She experienced in absolute firsthand all that was happening around her and within her.  And then she treasured what she had seen and heard.  She pondered it.  She contemplated it all.  She let it live and grow and mature within her, as she had allowed Jesus himself to do.

And thereby, she came to understand.  To understand more deeply than others.  To belong to Jesus more deeply, not only by physical link as his mother, but connected profoundly as his first disciple.

So it is good for us to imitate Mary in this season of staying with the events and the truth of Christmas, asking Christmas day after day, “What do you have to say to me?  To my life?  To the times in which I live?  Speak Christmas.”

If we do, it will.

Posted in Images, Words!

Who are you?

img_0098I did something last night that I love and rarely do anymore. I went to the movies. I drove about 15 minutes from here to the PJ Cinema at Port Jefferson, New York. Hey, for $9 tickets you all should be coming here from wherever you are. I’ve got room if you need to bunk out afterwards.

After hearing a lot of good things about Lady Bird, I set out to see it. Two things. It was as good as anyone had told me, and maybe better. And secondly, I was the only person in the theater. [Our attention spans as individuals (and as a people) we are told now is shorter than that of goldfish. What did I say? Oh yeah, the movie . . .]

Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story about 17-year-old Lady Bird McPherson. It’s all about relationships: with her parents, her brother and his significant other, her first boyfriends, her hometown, her school, religion – all the good stuff. And why shouldn’t it be? It reminded me of something I know, but need to be reminded of about 10,000 times a day: human stories are stories about relationships, beginning, middle and end. Every one of them is unique, and every one of them will remind you of millions of others. (Not to exaggerate).

This story is a reflection on the importance (or not) of name. What you call yourself, what other people call you; what has this to do with who you are? With who you are becoming? With who you want to become and to be? Lady Bird gets the usual scrapes and bruises on the way to her 18th birthday. Thanks to the genuineness and the light touch of Saoirse Ronan in the title role, and to the performances of those around her, you feel every bump and bruise (and perhaps are reminded of some of your own, whenever 17 was for you). People who love each other genuinely still get it wrong, all wrong, all the time, And somehow, through it all, right there in the mixed-up, pained, confused, non-stage production that every life is, there is a sense of what some folk would call a ‘plan’, and other folk would get nauseous in just hearing the word there. So to put it another way then, for the nauseous friends: within the web of relationships that we all are, as evident and as complex as each of those webs are, all is not, after all, the chaos that might easily and reasonably be expected. There is a kind of order. There is a kind of identity coming together. All in an ungainly, uneasy way that for me at least, points toward the ungainly, uneasy, and completely faithful commitment of what some of us call God to what some of us call the miracle of being human. That miracle by the way, is readily described by simply surviving to age 17, simply daring to love, bravely trying to figure who am I and why. At any and all stages of living.

Two tidbits of the brilliant writing of director Greta Gerwig will stay with me (and likely end up in a homily – what a fate!). At a college party our hero, while drinking herself sick, asks a guy she meets as an opening query (!), whether he believes in God. As was likely, he replies in the negative. Pressed as to why by Ms. McPherson, he says something like that ‘to start with, it’s just stupid.’ Lady Bird, in reply muses almost to herself, “We call ourselves what our parents name us, but we think it’s stupid to believe in God.” Something like that. Massive acceptance on the one hand before we know if it’s deserved; and equally significant rejection on the other, also before we know whether it is deserved.

Earlier, still at her Catholic high school, Lady Bird was called to the Principal’s office. There the wise old nun appreciated the love for her hometown of Sacramento evidenced in the young woman’s college admission essay. Lady Bird understood herself to disdain Sacramento. The Principal persists, remarking on the way Lady Bird describes the town as she writes about it. “I pay attention,” or similar words, are Lady Bird’s response. The nun offers in return that paying attention and love might just be the same thing. Here was a beautiful use and rendering of the words of 20th century philosopher Simone Weil who wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And love at its truest might just be the deepest generosity of which the human heart is capable.

It’s all a ‘sacramento,’ a sacramentum, a sacrament: an effective sign that brings about that which it signifies. However she is named, Lady Bird’s life signifies the worthwhileness of it all. There’s a big story being played out in all our little stories.

– John McGinty

Lady Bird Trailer

Posted in Images, Words!

Under the patronage of Canterbury

O supreme and unapproachable light! O whole and blessed truth, how far art thou from me, who am so near to thee! How far removed art thou from my vision, though I am so near to thine! Everywhere thou art wholly present, and I see thee not. In thee I move, and in thee I have my being; and I cannot come to thee. Thou art within me, and about me, and I feel thee not.

~ Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)

anselm

Saint Anselm (from anselm.edu)

This is Reformation Day, 498 years later.  Luther is reputed to have said (probably inaccurately): “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

This is Halloween, and though I didn’t have an opportunity to provide treats to a group of trick-or-treaters, I have seen some smile-producing photos of friends’ little ones costumed-up for the occasion.

This is the eve of the Octave of Prayer leading up to the national election day, which our Bishop has asked us to keep in all the parishes of the Diocese of Long Island.

And these are the last hours before I officially let go of the responsibility as Dean of Mercer School of Theology, and take up the ministry of parish priest for the Church of Saint Anselm on Long Island.  I spent today in my office at Mercer, packing more stuff than my little auto could carry this evening.  Before those efforts it was fun to cook breakfast for any members of the diocesan stuff who wanted to stop in to the Saint Drogo Refectory at Mercer.  ‘Egg Bake’ and ‘French toast casserole,’ complemented by plenty of bacon, seemed to satisfy the group.  It was fun.

Tonight I am both weary and full of anticipation.  I feel something in common this evening with the ancient Roman god, Janus: “In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus (/ˈnəs/; Latin: Ianus,pronounced [ˈjaː.nus]) is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, doorways,[1]passages, and endings” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus]. He was depicted as having two faces, one set toward the past and the other toward the future. That visual expresses pretty accurately what transition feels like in my life tonight.  Looking both ways it is hard to see clearly, but it is also natural to feel both gratitude for what has been and anticipation for what will be.

janus

A sculpture of the Roman god, Janus, found in the Vatican Museum [wikipedia].

There is another reason why I might feel a camaraderie this night with this ancient heady Roman.  For five years of my life I lived in Rome on the hill named after him, the Gianicolo.

Where do I face now?  This, I think, is the night for letting go, or at least beginning to do so. Tomorrow will be the day for beginning to get my head and arms and heart around a new place, new community, same Gospel, same priesthood, same faith, a different part of the same mission.  There is time, and indeed need, for looking both ways – backward and ahead.

So tonight, as I sit at the table in the dining room of the rectory at Shoreham, it doesn’t any more, already, seem strange to be here.  I stayed overnight here a couple of nights last week. Here I move under the explicit patronage of Canterbury.  But what feels not only extraordinary but unbelievable, is the fact that I am not expected tomorrow morning at Mercer School of Theology.  I never claim to get most accomplished that I see as needed and good.  But I do claim to always make a valiant try. And when the moment comes to stop, to let it go, to move on, to leave it to others, it just feels initially . . . bizarre.  Unreal.

So here I am tonight with Janus.  Not a bad place to be with both good memories of the past and good opportunities ahead.   But nonetheless, looking straight into change with eyes in each direction, a disconcerting place.